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Google's Rick Klau Discusses RSS and Recent Changes To Google's Indexation Algorithm

rick_klau1.jpg Rick Klau is a really sharp web marketer. Rick now works on content acquisition for Google, having joined Google as part of their FeedBurner acquisition last year. Just before the holidays, Rick spent some time chatting with me about RSS, online reputation monitoring, and recent changes to the Google search index algorithm. Here's the podcast transcript from our conversation on December 19th, 2007. 

Rick Klau Interview: Transcript

Alan Rimm-Kaufman: I’m honored to be here today with Rick Klau of Google. Rick Klau: Alan, it’s great to be here, thanks so much for including me. Alan: Thanks so much for taking the time. Now, over at Google, Rick, your title is Strategic Partner Development for Content Acquisition. Can you tell us a bit what that means, what you do at Google, and how you ended up there? Rick: Absolutely. I’ll start in reverse since it makes a little bit more sense to explain the title once you know how I got here. I joined Google about seven months ago as a result of the FeedBurner acquisition. As you know, I had run the publisher’s services group at FeedBurner for a little over two years, and when Google acquired FeedBurner, I ended up in the content acquisition group and was asked to move out to our Mountain View headquarters. Content acquisition, we are, broadly speaking, the group responsible for acquiring all of the non-crawlable content for distribution throughout Google’s services. So if you think about satellite imagery, aerial photographs, business listings, you name it; all of the information that the search engine can’t get on it’s own, we’re part of the group that works with content partners to make sure we get access to that information and make sure it’s easily distributed. My role specifically, strategic partner development, is one of negotiating partnerships with our content partners and seeking out opportunities where there’s content we either don’t currently have or don’t have completely, and making sure that we work well with those partners. Interestingly also, remain focused on FeedBurner, mostly in looking for ways to add value to existing RSS and Adam feeds, and try and fit those into the context of my role here in content acquisitions. So I think one of my focuses for 2008 will be finding ways to make RSS its own content acquisition vehicle for the hundreds of thousands of publishers that use FeedBurner today. Alan: I’m sure most of our listeners are well acquainted with FeedBurner, but for those that might not be; can you give just a quick synopsis of what FeedBurner does and its role in the web ecosystem? Rick: Certainly. We, prior to the acquisition, we were the largest manager of RSS feeds in the world. What that means is we published feeds on behalf of publishers and provide a suite of analytics to help publishers, whether they be bloggers, podcasters, or major media organizations like Dow Jones, USA Today, and Ziff Davis and others use FeedBurner both as an analytics provider so that they can get better insight into how their feeds are consumed, but also an optimization layer to provide integration into their RSS content. And then finally an advertising layer where we built out an ad server to monetize the distribution of their syndicated content. Alan: Neat stuff. At an earlier show this year, I heard you tell a story about the “boy was I dumb” post by Leo LaPorte that nearly sunk FeedBurner in your early days? Rick: Well, there was certainly some fear. You’re referring to what at the time was well known, I think fortunately memories fade on some of these things. But yeah, I was interviewed by a journalist well over two years ago now, as podcasting was just starting off. And at the time, Leo, a well known tech commentator, had a podcast running through FeedBurner. And Leo hadn’t realized he had activated a service within FeedBurner that made his data public. And I shared his data with the journalist, knowing that he had made that setting public, and when the data came out, Leo was upset with the fact that we had, by his estimation, violated some terms of service. We hadn’t, we thought we’d been pretty clear in how the service was set up, and what the settings were. But rather than turn it into a finger pointing session of say, “Hey, Leo made a mistake,” that wasn’t going to solve the problem. There were hundreds of comments on that initial post that he made on his site, and as you would imagine, when something like that happens there were lots of other posts. We felt at FeedBurner that our business was contingent on earning and maintaining the trust of our growing number of publishers, so we – Alan: How did you get, sorry to interrupt – Rick: No, go ahead. Alan: But how did the management team, at that point you were a relatively modest sized start up, and you were facing this tremendous PR disaster, how did you become aware of it, how did you respond, how did you know what was going on in the blogosphere being spoken about you guys? Rick: Well, it’s actually pretty funny. We were a small group, we were about a dozen, maybe 15 of us at the time. And it just happened to be late in the summer when I was taking a weekend vacation with my in-laws at a little hotel on a lake in Wisconsin; our CEO was at a wedding; our COO was visiting family; so none of us were actually home. And I got an email from a friend of mine on my BlackBerry, telling me that there was this post at Leo’s website. So we immediately went into a distributed damage control mode, where we were monitoring Technorati, we were monitoring other services that were crawling RSS feeds at the time and looking for real time mentions of this particular post, and then we took it upon ourselves to divide and conquer. Each of us was monitoring different threads in different places, making sure to leave comments where appropriate, answer emails as they were coming into our work queue; there were five of us that were really trying to shoulder that burden collectively. We estimate we left well over a hundred comments that night, and answered an equal number of emails that night and the following Sunday. The end result was that by Monday, when the rest of the world was waking up and getting into work and seeing this minor dust storm that had erupted, the end result was not a, wow, look at the mistake FeedBurner made, by then, Leo had already acknowledged that it was something he’d done, not something we had done, and effectively recanted the initial accusation. All of the attendant discussion that had happened throughout the blogosphere had clarifications that pointed out what happened, why it happened, what we were doing as a result. And much of the what I would consider mainstream coverage of this was instead about what a wonderful job FeedBurner had done monitoring discussions of our brand instead of, wow, what a scary privacy issue this might have been. So instead of it being a risk or doing any damage to FeedBurner, it ended up being quite a positive thing. And then, hilariously, about a month ago, Leo and I ran into each other at a conference, ended up having a beer together and we had a great evening. And we both were laughing about that event from two years ago, and today both can point to how different communications are in an age when conversations are effectively instantaneous. Alan: I think that’s a huge takeaway message for anyone responsible for an online brand. Rick: It hopefully is, and I’ve tried to share with people, it could have been, it would have been very easy to get extremely personal very quickly and be upset with Leo; but you know what, we all have blogs, and our blogs are our outlet. So for him, he felt he’d been wronged, and so it was only natural that that would be where he would start the conversation. We don’t have the ability to pick and choose where those conversations happen; I think marketers more generally, to extrapolate this more broadly, they don’t get to control those conversations either. But it is absolutely incumbent upon them to use the tools at their disposal to get engaged and monitor those discussions and participate. Alan: Good stuff. On the RSS theme, such great marketing channels such as email and banners and so forth have been almost destroyed by over-advertising and by spam. Will RSS meet the same fate? Rick: I sure hope not. I think, clearly we’re at Google, which is a company which has managed to support an ever-growing ecosystem of publishers and content sources; where advertising isn’t seen as overly intrusive, but is in fact conducive to the production of content and the distribution of content. With regards to RSS, though, I think there are a couple of things that will help avoid some prior mistakes; you mentioned email as one, certainly where spam has become a challenge. And that is, it’s part technical, I think it’s also part user behavior. On the technical side, RSS is fundamentally different in that the user is in complete control of the receipt of the content. Unlike email, where the user has to part with their email address and then trust the publisher not to a) sell that email address to someone else, or b) start distributing commercial content to that email address. In the case of RSS, the user gives up nothing. They go to Google reader, they say I want to subscribe to Alan’s blog; and if Alan starts putting content into his blog that that user doesn’t want, they unsubscribe. Alan has no opportunity to continue to communicate with them ever again. So I think there’s a fundamental difference there that helps that user adoption, where there are very few risks to that channel of communication being hijacked. As a result, I think that it is increasingly a channel of distribution that publishers large and small are looking to as a way of building up a loyal communication vehicle with a growing audience of people. And to the extent that they do that, they know that the people who are opting in really do so at their discretion, so it’s up to the publisher then to maintain control of that channel and not abuse that trust. Because it’s very easy for the recipient of that content to shut it down. We’ve seen that happen time and again, when publishers abruptly change the content in the feed, or they change the balance so there’s ads then content. You see an almost immediate impact, where, once the signal to noise ratio is out of whack, users leave. And thanks to services like FeedBurner, publishers know when that departure happens. Part of what we like to think we do is give publishers visibility to that audience and control very cleanly the balance of monetization and content, so that they can monetize that distribution without abusing. Alan: Thanks. Changing gears a bit, there was an interesting post yesterday on the Google webmaster central blog post of yesterday, in which you guys announced that RSS and Atom feeds will be coming out of the broad Google search index. Can you explain what that means to us folks? Rick: Absolutely. This is something that I think at every search engine conference for the last two years, certainly well ahead of Google acquiring FeedBurner, I would get asked to talk at every presentation. Does publishing an RSS feed create a risk of duplicate content, do I risk getting penalized if my feed shows up in Google alongside my website. Google has always worked very hard to insure that we know where the authoritative source of content is, and it wasn’t often that a feed would compete with the website as the authoritative location of where that content lives. But nevertheless, there were certain edge cases where that did happen. And the harder that the search quality team looked at feeds and looked at the feed content that was being indexed in the search engine; it was almost always the case that the feed content was a corollary to an existing webpage or an existing website. In other words, there were very few cases where the feed had content that didn’t live somewhere on the web. As a result, we made the decision, and actually started doing this a couple months ago, and just this week documented what we did and why we did it; we have removed feeds from the index entirely, with one exception, and that is if you’re publishing a podcast, there are many cases where podcasts do not have a corresponding web page. In those cases where feeds have – media enclosures is the term for them, the media file, whether it’s an audio or video file – we will continue to index and include podcasts in the Google.com index. But for text feeds, those are no longer being indexed in the search index at all. Alan: So since most bloggers write to their blog, and that generates an HTML page as well as a feed, there’s no worries, is that correct? Because the content’s actually ending up on a website page somewhere which Google can find? Rick: That’s absolutely right. And that’s true whether you’re a blogger or whether you’re Wall Street Journal publishing a feed that is a component and compliment to your main, the latest news in the financial market. Alan: So it’s a pretty small, specialized set of people that this might affect, and the general bloggers have no worries that their content will vanish from Google? Rick: In fact, it’s the opposite. What this insures is that the content will be authoritative and will be the reference point for the index points; searchers too. The feed becomes a mechanism for distributing content to end points, through services like iGoogle and Google reader and many of the other hundreds of RSS readers out in the wild. And searchable through Google blog search, but there will no longer be a risk to a publisher that, by publishing one post, which in the case of most blogs ends up in a feed and on a website; that that would ever create a situation in which there duplicate content possibilities. Alan: Thanks for soothing the nerves of millions of bloggers out there. Wrapping up, what’s the most important tip for online marketers to know about RSS? Rick: I think that the key, especially as we move into 2008, retailers, online marketers should look at RSS as more than a distribution vehicle to end users; it should be a tool for reusing and truly syndicating our content into multiple places. So if you think about a feed as a pointer to the latest content on that marketer, that content can show up in an animated ad, which will keep their creative, always up to date. It can show up on their website, it can show up in their email signature files; so they get to have one piece of content get reused in a multiplicity of ways. It’s a very efficient model, and one that I think we will see more and more marketers come to really embrace in the year to come. Alan: Rick, thank you so much for being generous with your advice and your time this afternoon. Appreciate it. Rick: Alan, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you again, have a wonderful, as we wrap up here, wonderful end of the year.

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